The Eternal City is filled with some of the most extraordinary works of ancient art; one the most beautiful is surprisingly one of the least visited. It’s the summer dining room from the Villa of Livia, who was the wife of Emperor Augustus. Life-size frescoes of trees, flowers, fruit and birds decorate four walls to create a continuous 360° view. The luxuriant paradise was unearthed in 1863 and dates back to 39 B.C., now housed in Palazzo Massimo, Rome’s Archaeological Museum (located near the train station and Santa Maria Maggiore).
Allow yourself to be completely immersed as Livia’s garden casts its enchanting spell. A lush Eden grows improbably beyond an illusionistic fence where birds take flight in sky whose color variations create a mesmerizing atmospheric effect. You can almost detect the rustling of wind through the leaves. Scholars have recognized a plethora of vegetation including umbrella pine, oak, red fir, quince, pomegranate, orange, myrtle, oleander, date palm, strawberry, laurel, cypress, ivy, acanthus, rose, poppy, iris, violet, chamomile, chrysanthemum, fern and more! Livia lived to 83, extraordinary for the time, and was the only woman to be deified for her service to the Empire.
Palazzo Massimo also has an extensive collection of statuary, mosaics, frescoes and coins. Be sure and visit the next time you are in Roma!
Venice, once an exotic East-meets-West Xanadu, had long been a tourist honeypot by the turn of the 18th century, with Europe’s best courtesans, elegant gambling salons and of course the original grand old party, Carnevale. Most famous of all revelers was Casanova whose infamous seductions were, indeed, an expression of Venetian licentiousness. But then abruptly, Carnevale was kaput. Napoleon, notorious killjoy that he was, decreed an end to all masquerade balls and public festivities when he took Venice as his own in 1797. It was not until 1979 that the pipers piped and revelers once again reveled thanks to many young art students committed to reviving the craft of mask-making.
Nowadays anyone who can afford tickets can party the night away at Venice’s most exclusive private palazzi. The most opulent of the Balls may well be Il Ballo del Doge, once described by Vanity Fair as “the most sumptuous, refined exclusive ball in the world.” You can either create or bring your own costume from home or, better yet, hire sumptuous finery from a Venetian atelier. If you go this route be sure to plan ahead, especially if you have something spectacular or specific in mind. As you might expect, renting a costume can be expensive (800 euros or more). Most important of all, you will need to BYO mask, as they are seldom rented. (All photographs featured in this post are courtesy of Anita Sanseverino who has been taking amazing photos of La Bella Italia for decades.)
Before vacations, one went on “tour”… a multi-month affair restricted to the upper classes. For most, especially well-heeled Brits, Italy was THE cultural pinnacle of the Grand Tour with mandatory stops in Venice, Florence and Rome.
“Grand Tourists” desiring a pictorial souvenir, especially of the enchanting floating city of Venice, purchased large-scale paintings by most famously Canaletto and Guardi. These detailed “view” paintings are aggrandized postcards: lovely, romanticized images that capture the epic beauty and refinement of Venetian architecture and the atmosphere that, to this day, gives La Serenissima its unique sense of place.
The Brits have always had a special love affair with La Bella Italia, and the Queen’s Gallery in London holds the finest and most extensive collection of paintings and drawings by Canaletto thanks to King George lll’ s timely purchase of a library and associated works from Joseph Smith, an art dealer, Canaletto’s agent and the British Consul in Venice who had fallen upon hard times.